Review by Ann McDonald
London, Florence, Athens: Susanna, the precocious narrator of Cambridge, would rather be home than in any of these places. Uprooted from the streets around Harvard Square, she feels lost and excluded in all the locations to which her father’s career takes the family. She comes home with relief—but soon enough wonders if outsiderness may be her permanent condition.
“Cambridge” is an absorbing story by Susanna Kayson. She explores the feelings, journeys and emotions of a young girl growing up. You walk and smile and cry along with her and the countries she visits with her family, are wonderfully imagined. You almost feel like you are there and in spite of the beautiful scenery, she introduces us to the people and makes them, and the scenarios, very believable. Susanna starts her story at a loss to comprehend why she is being taken away from her beloved Cambridge, to move to England. Cold, draughty and still war-torn in the 1950s, her father is pleased, for him, it’s a return to where he spent the war years studying aerial photos of the best cities to bomb.
Her mother, a lover of music, art and all things esoteric, is the bane of Susanna’s life. And her baby sister is too young to have an opinion so she is tolerated by Susanna. They are joined by Fredrika, an 18 year-old Swedish girl who is the younger sister’s nanny. Susanna Kayson taps into the mind and dreams of our heroine and it’s remarkable how insightful she is. While enjoying the museums and general sights of London, she can, at the same time, paint a picture of a dull and unattractive England. It was there that Susanna perfected the art of flying and would return to Cambridge in her dreams on a regular basis.
After their stay in England, the family moves on to Florence and this is wonderful to her. The light, the warmth and bathrooms that actually work. It’s here that she develops a relationship with her father and he explains everything to her. It’s also where she falls in love with a statue of St. George. He over-powers her with his gaze and she blushes and turns away, not understanding the feelings she has. The story weaves in between the reality of Italy and the dreams in her imagination. Eventually, they return to the U.S. and her beloved Cambridge. We are then introduced to her friend Roger, who loves all things related to airplanes and life in general.
His enthusiasm reminds her of feelings of failure within herself. When you are introduced to her family and their way of life, you begin to understand how complicated she makes life for herself. Her mother, a very talented pianist, tries to teach Susanna how to play but they end up fighting, thus, it does not work. Then along comes Mr. Vishna, an Indian academic who is hired by her mother to teach her how to play and he shows her how to listen and let the music come in. She begins to grow and wants nothing to do with it. Growing sucks! The one word that sums Susanna up is “Why”. Everything must be explained in nauseating detail and that irritates everyone, including, at times, the reader.
Her final odyssey takes her to Greece where we try to sift through her growing emotions. She is in the land of tragedy, murder, great journeys and love affairs. Greece falls around her mind like a shower of stars that uplifts her and saddens her at the same time as she reaches the beginning of her young womanhood. The discovery of her first period was very touching and it will remind many women, of that initial feeling of other. She emerges from the cocoon of childhood in the land before time but when she finally gets back to her Cambridge, she finds that it has changed and realizes that change is a two-way mirror.
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